Executive Spotlight: John Bresnahan, managing partner, Devanny Condron Funeral Home, Pittsfield
PITTSFIELD — John Bresnahan's professional career has been marked by his work in two professions: funeral service and license inspecting.
Funeral directors are trained to be "empathetic," Bresnahan said, a skill they need to master in dealing with families who are going through one of the hardest times in their lives. State licensing inspectors, for obvious reasons, aren't welcomed as warmly by the people they deal with as funeral directors are. It takes someone who thoroughly understands the ins and outs of both professions, including the duties and responsibilities, to do these jobs well.
Currently the managing partner of Devanny-Condron Funeral Home in Pittsfield, which is affiliated with Carriage Services, Bresnahan returned to the funeral service profession in 2013 after spending a decade as an inspector for the state Division of Professional Licensure, which included a stint as the organization's assistant chief.
An agency within the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, the DPL is responsible for 31 boards of registration, which license and regulate more than 370,000 individuals and businesses to practice some 50 trades and professions in Massachusetts. Bresnahan kept his funeral director's license while working as a state inspector, but had it downgraded from ownership status.
We met up with Bresnahan recently to talk with him about his work in both professions, and whether more or less regulation is required is necessary to ensure the practitioners of licensed professions perform them the right way.
Q: How did you enter the funeral service?
A: I graduated from Siena College in 1976 and majored in political science, a rather marketable degree. ... I came home (to Pittsfield), and looked at a couple of things. I thought I'd like to be an attorney. I wanted to be accepted to law school, but I didn't get in where I wanted to go. ... My mother suggested that I go speak to Fran Devanny (the Devanny-Condron Funeral Home's then owner) who was my mother's cousin.
Q: So your mother thought funeral service would be right for you?
A: She said, 'Why don't you go down there and see what it's like? I think you would be good at it personality-wise.' And my response was, 'Ma, I'm not sure about that.'
(But) I did. I followed through and Fran was very kind. He hired me and mentored me right through to his untimely death in 1992.
Q: How do funeral directors deal with people who are grieving?
A: Professionally, funeral directors are trained to be empathetic. That training allows you to step back one or two steps to perform the task that the family has asked you to help with. You don't get involved as a family member. You must remember that you're the professional that they're relying on to help shepherd them through this process.
Q: How do you achieve that?
A: Fran Devanny mentored me and taught me well. I use this (phrase) commonly, "listen to what people want you to do on their behalf so that you can help them honor a family member." That's a responsibility that we take seriously.
Q: What's the hardest part about being a funeral director?
A: It's to be available 365/24/7 because people's deaths don't follow a schedule nor do people's needs. And you must always remember that you have a family of your own with all the responsibilities that go with that. Funeral directors miss baseball games, dance recitals and plays but we always try to make up for those in other ways.
Q: Why did you leave the funeral service to join the Division of Professional Licensure?
A: I was approached to apply for the position...After a lengthy interview process I was selected to become the investigator for the board of funeral service on June 23, 2003..For the next seven years I served as the investigator for that board, the board of drinking water facility operators and the board of sanitarians (a public health position).
Q: As an inspector, how do you approach an investigation when people are already wary that you're coming?
A: I think there is a skill set involved in introducing yourself appropriately, explaining that you're there, that you're in town that day and that you're looking at everyone who is operating a funeral home.
Q: Was it difficult?
A: I think the hardest part was to get people used to me saying can you show me your vertical file, which for the most part, contains your pre-paid funerals. That was a huge shift for licensees out in the field. (The regulations had changed shortly before he became an inspector). No one had ever done that before. ...You kind of had to educate them as to why you were doing that.
Q: The Obama Administration increased regulations, the Trump Administration has reduced them. Is more regulation better than less regulation?
A: It really doesn't matter if there's more or less regulation, it just comes down to people...I honestly think that there are those individuals across any occupation who are genetically challenged to follow the right course of action. They just can't help themselves. (They) cut corners, substituting, in some instances taking people's money. In my personal view, the regulations that I was familiar with on the three or four boards (he acted as an inspector for) were not onerous by any stretch. They were easily able to be read. Consequently, I think that you ran a very successful business just by following the regulations.
Q: Without going into who did it, what's the most egregious violation you ever uncovered as an inspector for those three boards?
A: One was monetary-based. I saw a couple of directors that took hundreds of thousands of dollars of client money. The other part, I think, was some mishandling of human remains.
Q: Is there any one field where you tend to see more rule breaking than others?
A: Yes, but I won't comment because it would be shocking to people.
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